On a tense, chaotic night, with the eyes of the nation trained on the Iowa caucuses, that state’s Democratic Party was counting on a slick new smartphone app to make everything go smoothly.
The app was coded by a tech firm run by veterans of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, one of them a former Google engineer. It was designed to meet new requirements instituted after that year’s contentious Iowa caucuses, in which Clinton narrowly edged out Bernie Sanders. To provide more transparency this time around, the state party promised to report not just the final results but voters’ initial and second choices as well.
With so much more data to tabulate than in previous years, party leaders feared that the established system of reporting numbers by phone would be too slow. A proposal for a “tele-caucus” system enabling virtual voting was rejected as too vulnerable to hacking. An app that could instantaneously relay the numbers as soon as precinct chairs input them, developed by Democratic Party loyalists, looked like the perfect solution.
It turned out to be a crushing failure.
Throughout the long, long night, precinct chairs found themselves unable to make the app work properly. Some never figured out how to download or install it in the first place. Those who tried to report their results via a backup phone line found themselves on hold, sometimes for more than an hour.
Results from Monday’s caucuses could not be transmitted to Iowa party headquarters, and state Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price blamed the problem on a coding error. “While our plan is to release results as soon as possible today, our ultimate goal is to ensure that the integrity and accuracy of the process continues to be upheld,” he said in a statement Tuesday morning.
Confusion among caucus organizers over how to use the app also seemed to contribute to the problem.
Bryce Smith, chair of the Dallas County Democrats, said that only about 12 of his 34 precinct chairs reported using the app successfully. He also said that eight of his chairs had not even downloaded the app, suggesting that some of them didn’t or couldn’t adapt to the technology. When his caucus chairs called in their results, the hold times on the phone with the state party ranged from 12 minutes to 45 minutes, Smith said.
The firm behind the app is Shadow, an affiliate of ACRONYM, a Democratic nonprofit founded in 2017 “to educate, inspire, register, and mobilize voters,” according to its website. Shadow started out as Groundbase, a tech developer co-founded by Gerard Niemira and Krista Davis, who worked for the tech team on Clinton’s campaign for the 2016 Democratic nomination.
Niemira had previously worked at kiva.org, a nonprofit that makes loans to entrepreneurs and others in the developing world, and Davis had spent eight years as an engineer at Google. ACRONYM’s founder and CEO is Tara McGowan, a former journalist and digital producer with President Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign.
In the days leading up to caucus night, Shadow’s app was seen as “a potential target for early election interference,” according to the Des Moines Register.
Instead, a different problem arose.
“We found inconsistencies in the reporting of three sets of results. In addition to the tech systems being used to tabulate results, we are also using photos of results and a paper trail to validate that all results match and ensure that we have confidence and accuracy in the numbers we report,” Iowa Democratic Party communications director Mandy McClure said in a written statement released late Monday night.
“This is simply a reporting issue, the app did not go down and this is not a hack or an intrusion. The underlying data and paper trail is sound and will simply take time to further report the results.”
Shadow and its cofounders did not reply to emails seeking comment.
ACRONYM acquired Shadow in January 2019 to function as its tech-development arm. “When a light is shining, Shadows are a constant companion,” its website says. “We see ourselves as building a long-term, side-by-side ‘Shadow’ of tech infrastructure to the Democratic Party and the progressive community at large.”
In a statement late Monday night, ACRONYM distanced itself from Shadow, saying it was not a tech provider and did not have any information about what went wrong in Iowa.
In an interview with NPR in January, Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa state Democratic Party, declined to say whether it had been tested for vulnerabilities by any independent experts, suggesting the secrecy around it helped to keep it secure from cyberattacks. The state party subsequently told the Des Moines Register it had been independently tested.
Marian K. Schneider, president of Verified Voting, a nonpartisan election integrity organization, found out only a week ago that Iowa planned to use a mobile app for results reporting; previously, she had heard a mobile app would be used only to collect votes from those who couldn’t attend in person. “We do not support voting that relies on the internet,” since cybersecurity experts are “pretty unanimous” that it’s not a secure method, she said.
Preserving and protecting votes by recording them on paper — which the party did — is key, she said. “The chairs have the actual results recorded. They’re preserved and can be aggregated from those records. That’s a good thing,” Schneider said. “It’s OK that we take the time to get it right.”
The state Democratic parties of Iowa and Nevada each paid around $60,000 to Shadow, according to Federal Election Commission disclosures. Nevada’s Democratic caucuses are set for Feb. 22. On Tuesday, Nevada State Democratic Party Chair William McCurdy II said his organization “will not be employing the same app or vendor used in the Iowa caucus. We had already developed a series of backups and redundant reporting systems, and are currently evaluating the best path forward.”
There were signs of trouble with the app even before Monday night, said John Grennan, co-chairman of Iowa’s Poweshiek County Democratic Party. Opportunities to train on the app in advance did not bode well, Grennan said.
“They had all these issues,” he said. “We were supposed to be getting invitations to use it. The invites would never arrive.” The communications he did receive were confusing, he said. “A lot of people didn’t even load the app because it’s such a pain.”
When the big night came, Grennan, who was running the caucus site at Grinnell College, said the app appeared to be working as he input results, but he couldn’t tell with certainty.
“I kept getting kicked off,” Grennan said, adding that the app would reset if stopped part-way through. He said he called the party’s hotline with a question, but after nearly half an hour on hold, he gave up. “I’m 90% sure it went through [on the app.] I’ll have to work under the assumption that if it’s not there, they’re going to call me.”
Among Shadow’s clients is Pete Buttegieg’s presidential campaign, which paid $42,500 to the firm in July 2019 for “software rights and subscriptions,” according to disclosures to the FEC. A spokesman for the campaign says the payment was for a service used to send text messages to voters. The campaigns of Joe Biden and Kirsten Gillibrand, who withdrew from the race last year, also made smaller payments to Shadow.
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